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Book Review: ‘Eleanor,’ by David Michaelis

What’s really important to history is Eleanor’s public life once Franklin was elected president in 1932. She wanted to bring him stories about the real America and she traveled around the country bearing witness to the grief of its Depression-racked citizens. It was not at all what Americans expected of a first lady but as time went on, Michaelis writes, “fewer minded that the wife of the president was driving alone by night through villages and four-corners hamlets and stopping for gas on the outskirts of town.”

Michaelis is careful to point out the ways in which the younger Eleanor was not ahead of her time. He has a collection of examples of her early anti-Semitism. And she told white Southerners she “quite understood” their point of view on racial matters.

But she evolved, way ahead of most of the nation. In 1938, she attended a memorable meeting of human rights groups in Birmingham, where the not-yet-notorious Sheriff Bull Connor banned integrated audiences. So Eleanor sat on the side where the Black participants were cordoned off. When the police ordered her to move, she put her chair in the aisle and sat down.

After Pearl Harbor, Eleanor insisted on going to the Pacific war zone to support the troops. A visitor asked Franklin if that kind of trip wouldn’t leave her exhausted. “No,” her husband replied. “but she will tire everybody else.”

Eleanor’s worry was different — she was afraid that the troops would hear rumors about a female visitor, imagine a glamorous entertainer and be disappointed when she walked into the room. Not a problem. She toured the hospitals, speaking to each wounded soldier, and got up at 5 in the morning so she could have breakfast with the enlisted men. Fleet Adm. Bull Halsey, who had lobbied vigorously against her trip, recanted, declaring, “She alone accomplished more good than any other person or any group of persons who passed through my area.”

Eleanor was not with Franklin when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the presidential retreat in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945. And she was shocked when she discovered his old lover Lucy Mercer had been there, and that her daughter Anna had set up Mercer’s trip to give her ailing father the kind of comfort his wife never seemed able to provide.

Harry Truman cannily appointed Eleanor to a high-profile job in the new United Nations General Assembly, which was about to open in London. Early on she kept a low profile, working “six and a half days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day.” Her goal was adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1948, it happened. Moments after the vote, Michaelis reports, she quietly walked into the room, wearing no ceremonial clothes or makeup. “Her fellow delegates then accorded her something that had never been given before and would never be given again in the United Nations: an ovation for a single delegate by all nations.”

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